Cultural Talk: There can only be one Hong Kong

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Lately I have been following closely the debate surrounding the Hong Kong Occupy Central movement. Labeled as a struggle against China’s anti-democratic administration by the western media it has gained popular support in the western world as a fight for freedom.

It drew the attention not only of the media but of the international watchdogs, who quickly seized the opportunity to lecture the Chinese about democracy and begin to suggest various democracy monitoring mechanisms. I am not going to quote all the reasons why democracy is one of the most abused words masking western political hypocrisy or why permitting third parties to interfere and stick the democracy-meter in your mouth is a bad, bad idea. As a Greek and national of a country that in the last years has been shaken with tear gassed demonstrations, illegal taxation and vast unpunished political corruption and still this country is democratic, I feel like today’s sense of democracy leaves a lot to be desired.

But in any case the young Hong Kongnese have their cause and what motivates them night after night to take the streets is basically the desire to be free to denounce the alignment with China’s administration and policies. In every relationship, after all, a person has the right to voice their desires and intention and act upon them.

What however remains a question is after a hypothetical “divorce”, what would the new alignment be, since the UK has long now resigned from its former active role . To fully answer this question one must examine the identity of the Hong Kongnese people, who they are and who they identify with most.

To me the Hong Kongnese identity can be compared to that of an adopted child that is taken from its biological mother at a very young age and raised by a another mother. The child’s uniqueness, charisma and beauty is a combination of its upbringing (thanks to the foreign mother) and its natural charisma (thanks to the biological mother.) You cannot isolate either side to describe her. A grown up now, she is trying to get used to her birth mother’s ways and realizes that their newly found co-existence is much harder than she had expected.

Behind Hong Kong’s uniqueness there are some interesting facts . Here are few that culturally underlie the debate about Hong Kong:

Hong Kong was Chinese territory taken by the British
. Described as scattered fishing villages before its occupation by the imperialists, it was Chinese soil built and developed by the British. As a British crown colony needless to say it also did not enjoy democracy at a time where colonialism was still in effect.

Hong Kong was a gateway and entrepot to China before its opening up by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. The special interest the West had in Hong Kong was closely linked to its proximity to China and the trade potential attached to it.

After China’s opening up Shanghai has been gradually replacing Hong Kong’s role as an international port. The dynamics between the relationship of the mainlanders and the Hong Kongnese have rapidly changed. Now it is the mainlanders that are financially ahead and are calling the shots. This has been a huge blow on native Hong Kongers sense of self and pride.

Desired by both “mothers” Hong kong has been also neglected by both. When leaving in 1997, The British failed to supply the Hong Kongnese with full British citizenship as perhaps they ought to have done to support their growing feelings of identity loss. At the same time the Chinese have been gradually trying to rapidly integrate Hong Kong to what it has been interpreted as erosion of identity.

Hong Kong is a small place and China does not pretend to care about Hong Kong’s identity. Neither China was ever obliged to be oversensitive about an ex British colony.

However it should.

Hong Kong is a unique place built from scratch as a hybrid identity city state. It has been the ground for bold urban architectural experimentation: highrises and skyscrapers built on the steep and hilly topography of Hong Kong island, elevated roadways and a record of escalators, as well as sights skillfully integrating nature and hyper urbanism. Hong Kong’s international airport is one of the busiest airports in Asia built on large artificial land that was created by leveling two islands.

Even though the population is in majority ethnic Chinese, it has been home to different nationalities that prospered in different trades. It prides itself on a variety of authentic international cuisine available and high standard English speaking touristic services. It is a truly global city and a jewel to be carefully preserved by the Chinese.

But mostly for all the above it is a true piece of history. It is a reference to the past and a leap to the future. And for the Chinese who have invested millions in creating replica European cities like Venice or Paris, Hong Kong is the real thing. In fact there cannot be a second Hong Kong. But what will keep the flame alive is proudly declaring a Hong Kong identity that deserves to be voiced and preserved.

Hong Kong’s value as a unique historic global city and cultural investment will only increase with time if China allows it. It is loved by millions around the world, Chinese or not. It is a symbol, and just like everything precious there is a duty attached to it to protect and preserve.

My First Day in Beijing-The Kindness of Strangers

I spent Winter 2007 in Beijing and that was my virgin journey to Asia too. One Sunday afternoon I boarded an Air China flight from London to Beijing, half drunk and not sure what I was doing. You see, I had this brilliant idea to buy the friend who drove me to the airport a couple of drinks to thank him for the ride. He was Russian; he could take a bit of drunk driving, but it turns out I couldn’t handle the intercontinental check in intoxicated. I was ordered by the airline to remove the extra luggage weight to avoid a hefty fee and in my blurry rush ( I was going to miss my flight apparently) I misplaced my ipod, books and all survival related gadgets, only to find myself half an hour later sitting lonely and confused in a ready to take off plane for the other side of the world. Still under the spell of white wine, I started crying.

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The purpose of my trip was to improve my Mandarin language skills by taking a 3 month 7 hours per day intensive language course. Having already completed a one year Mandarin language course in London, I thought the knowledge in my Mandarin textbooks would be good enough to give me a sense of familiarity, but when I landed in Beijing 10 hours later, all jet lagged and flustered I felt like I had landed on another planet. Nothing I saw or experienced felt familiar in any way. Until then China was for me images picked up from Bruce Lee’s action movies, a combination of stereotyped China Town aesthetics with the occasional traditional architectural elements of pagodas here and there. I expected to see compact and “Europeanized” Hong Kong (which at the time I had never visited). Instead I found myself in a vast, chaotic smoggy megacity that at the time resembled an endless construction site: Highway after highway that connected eerily identical gated communities of residential towers, sprawled in a bare treeless land and keeping a very unfriendly distance from each other. The background noise night and day (and I mean all night) was that of construction drilling and sawing as new towers and gated communities sprang up.

View from my apartment, 27th floor

View from my apartment, 27th floor

As I was dropped by my airport guide at a spacious studio apartment on the 27th floor of one of these towers, dizzy and dehydrated, I had the disconcerting feeling that I had just landed in hell. I had no idea where and how to initiate my Chinese living experience as literally everything felt completely alien. For a person like me who had spent all her life in compact European cities, this was like exploring a new planet.

I remember walking outside, walking past the military dressed guards and seeing a big loitering crowd standing at the edge of the highway, watching. A young man approached me and spoke to me in Mandarin. I realized that unlike a listening exercise at my language school, his accent was hard to grasp and I could not understand what he was saying. I told him I needed to find a bank and a supermarket. He said he could drive me to both. I was so exhausted, muddled and my mouth burning with dehydration (the apartment had no water) that I went with him in his car. The man did as he said, took me to a cash point and waited until I got money and then he drove me to what it looked like a shopping mall. “The supermarket is here” he said and dropped me there. In my confusion and unspeakable relief to see a Carrefour in front of me, I forgot to ask him if he was a taxi driver and if he wanted money. He did not ask for any money though and just drove away.

Already late and nothing looks familiar

Already late and nothing looks familiar

After doing some shopping, I realized I had absolutely no idea how to get back. I did not even remember what “home” looked like. All the highways looked the same and all the gated communities were completely identical. My airport guide had provided me with a hand drawn map of where I lived. When I asked her for the exact street address, she had replied the place had no official address, just a name. It was already dark outside and I had started feeling panicky when some elderly Chinese couple approached me, “Where are you going”? They asked. I showed them the hand drawn map and they both nodded in recognition. “You are going the wrong way” they said “Your house in the other direction on your right hand side”.
I followed their advice. From the corner of my eye throughout my return home, I could see them walking on the other side of the pavement and silently keeping pace with me, making sure I got home alright.

Inside my Beijing apartment

Inside my Beijing apartment

In the next 3 cold Winter months that followed I got familiar with all the highways, bridges and underpasses of my “neighborhood”. I met lots of Beijing-ners and always made small talk with the taxi driver that drove me home. The conversation always started like that “Ni shi Meiguo ren?” (Are you American?) “Bu shi, Wo shi Xila ren” (No I am Greek). Xila ren! They replied always in astonishment. In the city of 20 million Chinese I was a rare species.

For me Beijing remained overwhelming, stripped of tradition when it came to aesthetics and architecture, but at the same time one of the most original places to experience China. I never really warmed up to its vastness, its impersonal highways and suffused with luxury, sanitized shopping malls, (Golden pillars hosting a paradise of Italian fashion, often accompanied with shocking sanitation facilities) which always contrasted with the loitering crowds and heavy smog outside. Its luxuries served however as a pleasant getaway from its harsh realities.

Tibetan restaurant Beijing

Tibetan restaurant Beijing

There was a lot to be explored, experienced and learnt. Looking back I would not change Beijing for anything. If you could scratch underneath its hard surface there was an incredible energy emanating from that megacity that was transforming, so quickly and miraculously, that its eagerness to move into the Future nurtured my mind and soul. It was inspiring. It was happening and it attracted young people from all over the world thirsty for its energy and vibe, proud to become witnesses to its transformation.